Conspiracy theorists love tall tales of government manipulation—like theories that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor. The Bush administration orchestrated 9/11. Obama kept Half-Life 3 all to himself. We've heard them all.
Back in 1972, the idea that the Nixon administration was responsible for the Watergate break-in was just another conspiracy theory. The crazy thing was that this one turned out to be true. Nixon, who looks more like a Muppet than a puppet master, and his top aides were pulling strings on the entire government. If they were able to accomplish that, who knows what else might be true?
The Nixon administration somehow convinces people not to talk to the reporters, but we're not sure how they do. In the movie, it's never clear if there is actual danger, or simply the threat of danger.
The reporters must resort to manipulation tactics of their own in order to find out the truth.
Ever since Richard Nixon, it seems like all U.S. presidents have been crooks of some sort. Bill Clinton didn't have sexual relations with that woman. (Yeah, right.) George H.W. Bush promised us no new taxes. (Thanks for nothing, George.) And Reagan literally* built the Death Star. (Source)
But Nixon set the bar pretty high, leading an administration that was willing to lie, cheat, steal, and wire-tap the opposition in order to assure his re-election. All the President's Men exposes the breadth of Nixon's crimes. We have to wonder if they started small, and then it snowballed into the national scandal it became. But the road to the Dark side is made up of small steps.
(*Depends on your definition of "literally.")
Even though history tells us what happened in the Watergate scandal, the film starts with the break-in itself, and slowly works its way up the ladder to Nixon. By showing the story in this way, the film shows us the true scale of the crime perpetrated.
The reporters have to engage in criminal activity of their own in order to expose the scandal. You know whatever Deep Throat is up to isn't legal.
Reporters are a clever bunch. They not only uncover the news, but they also influence the news by how they choose to report on it. They must be able to sniff out sources, follow leads, and get good quotes. But there's a fine line between a journalist who does the dirty work, and one who's just dirty.
With All the President's Men, all the cunning and cleverness comes from the reporters. Virtually none of it comes from the government, which is scrambling around behind the scenes to cover up its boneheaded mistakes. The Nixon administration is so stupid they seem clever, and the reporters have to be clever enough to think like idiots in order to expose them.
Cunning and cleverness alone won't make a good news story. Bernstein likes to follow his gut feelings, but Bradlee, the editor, wants them backed up by good, hard sources.
The Nixon administration uses its authority to tell people what to do, but by engaging in illegal activity, they undermine their own authority.
Looking back at All the President's Men from over forty years in the future, it's hard to believe there was once a time when men wore their hair the way Dustin Hoffman does. It's also hard to believe that there was once a time when people trusted and supported the president completely.
One of the main reasons Woodward and Bernstein's investigation is opposed is the attitude of "the president would never do anything like that!" And why? Because of that honest face? Because he has a nice wife, child, and dog at home? No. People believe him just because he is the president.
Yes, people used to actually support the president. This is almost as crazy as believing that people used to wear feathered hair.
The film exploits the irony of patriotism, ending with Nixon taking the oath of office. By this point, we know what a sham it is, making Nixon's honest oath come across as offensively false.
Although some people believe Woodward and Bernstein are anti-patriotic for attacking the president, they actually have patriotic ideals. They know the president and the country are separate entities, and they are fighting for the country, not its corrupt leader.
Bipartisanship is a dirty word in politics today. The two parties never work together. During Nixon's campaign, as we see, the Republican committee to re-elect the President (aptly nicknamed "CREEP"), was actively attempting to sabotage the Democratic candidates.
However, in All the President's Men, the issues aren't Democrat vs. Republican. This is corruption vs. non-corruption. Light side vs. dark side. Frodo vs. Sauron. We learn that Bob Woodward's a Republican. He isn't blindly loyal to his party; he's loyal to his country, and will attempt to root out corruption, even if it is his own political party who's doing it.
If All the President's Men were fiction, it could get away with not naming the political parties. The party doesn't matter. The corruption does.
There are also office politics involved inside the newspaper, as reporters jockey for stories, editors attempt to move things around, and everyone tries to decide just how important the story they're working on actually is.
News stories don't write themselves. Even in today's blog-saturated culture (go follow "Ugly Renaissance Babies " on Tumblr right now) there's a human back there typing up all these posts and articles. Sometimes they have to dig hard to find sources, get quotes, or discover the ugliest Renaissance baby of them all.
This movie is called All the President's Men, not Two or Three of the President's Men, so Woodward and Bernstein have a lot of work to do. They have to talk to all of them, and none of them actually want to talk. Being a journalist involves a lot of talking, a lot of hunting, and a lot of typing, and when investigating a case of presidential corruption, carpal tunnel is the least of their worries.
The only reason Woodward and Bernstein, who are relatively inexperienced, are kept on the story is because they pursue it ruthlessly. With their inexperience comes determination.
Uncovering the Watergate scandal is a battle of wills. The reporters have to chip away at the seemingly impenetrable Nixon administration like two prisoners trying to break out of jail.